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Congress Wages Partisan Battle Over Iraq War

Times Staff Writer

For the first time since the United States invaded Iraq three years ago, Republican leaders Thursday officially convened a full-scale debate over the war -- an effort that they hoped would showcase the increasingly divergent positions of the two parties and that wound up unleashing passions and acrimony on both sides.

Democrats denounced the debate in the House of Representatives as a sham, objecting to Republicans’ characterization of debate on a nonbinding resolution on the war as a choice between “staying the course” and “cutting and running.”

Republicans accused Democrats of indecision and division, repeatedly equating talk of withdrawal with retreat.

“Members, this is not the time to go wobbly. Let’s give victory a chance,” said Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.).

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“This side is not trying to go wobbly,” countered Rep. Jane Harman of Venice, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “We’re trying to articulate what we think would be a better strategy for success in Iraq.”

The rancor spilled over to the Senate, where Republican leaders forced a test vote on the idea of withdrawal in an effort to fan divisions among Democrats. The measure failed, 93 to 6.

“This sends a good message that the U.S. Senate overwhelmingly opposes a cut-and-run strategy in Iraq,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas).

Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), whose ideas on withdrawal formed the basis for the Republican measure, denounced the maneuver as a “fibbing and fictitious vote.” He said he was still working on his version of a withdrawal plan and would introduce it next week.

“I look forward to having a debate, but I look forward to having a debate on the amendment that I bring as a senator,” Kerry said.

The long-postponed debate on Iraq comes four months before the midterm congressional elections, in which some strategists think sentiment for and against the war could determine which party emerges with a majority in Congress.

And it coincided with an announcement by the Pentagon that the number of U.S. personnel who have died in Iraq has reached 2,500. Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) marked that milestone by calling for a moment of silence on the House floor in honor of the fallen.

“This nation is at a strategic crossroads,” Skelton said. “We are spending $9 billion a month and have spent over $300 billion total on this war. More strikingly, we are losing a battalion’s worth of casualties a month, killed and injured....

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“We have been there some three years,” he added. “I think it’s time for us to seriously look at where we are, where we’re going.”

The Republican decision to allow debate on the war grew out of a confrontation last fall with Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, who called for the start of troop withdrawals from Iraq.

In an effort to undermine Murtha’s proposal, House Republicans forced a swift vote on a measure to “immediately” withdraw from Iraq. The motion failed, but drew vociferous complaints that it was the first time leaders had permitted discussion of the war in the House.

Until Thursday, the House had not formally debated military operations in Iraq since October 2002, when the chamber voted to authorize the use of force if Iraq failed to comply with United Nations demands. Six months later, the United States invaded and occupied Iraq.

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An upsurge in violence and a perceived lack of progress in rebuilding the country politically and economically has sapped public support for the war.

All the same, many Republicans think that discussing the war works to their favor politically, allowing them to emphasize the assertion that Democrats are weak and indecisive on national security issues.

“Frankly, I believe their real challenge is that they have no common unified position on Iraq as a party,” said Rep Tom Cole (R-Okla.). “Whether we are right or wrong on our side of the aisle, we do have a common position, and it’s expressed in this resolution.”

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) outlined the GOP position in opening the debate. He spoke at length about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and asserted that the war in Iraq was an integral part of the campaign against terrorism that began that day.

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“It is a battle we must endure and one in which we can and will be victorious,” Hastert said. “The alternative would be to cut and run and wait for them to regroup and bring the terror back to our shores.”

In an effort to force Democrats into an uncomfortable vote, Republican leaders -- including Hastert -- crafted a resolution that combined expressions of support for the troops and resolve in combating terrorism with a commitment to the engagement in Iraq. They also adopted rules that did not permit Democrats to offer amendments.

“It’s really unfortunate, as the president contends that we are fighting for democracy in Iraq, that we can’t have democracy on the House floor,” said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco).

“We expected a resolution confined to the country of Iraq and the conflict there,” Skelton said. “That is not what this resolution is. This resolution covers the entire Middle East waterfront, trying to blend together the Iraqi war and the war against terrorism, which has its genesis in Afghanistan. These are two separate and distinct wars.”

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A vote on the House resolution is expected today.

Democrats, including many members of the “Out of Iraq” caucus, which was formed last year, were debating whether to vote against it or vote “present” to avoid being accused of not supporting the troops. Rep. Tom Lantos of Burlingame, the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, urged his colleagues to vote against the resolution.

“There is no need to make a choice between ‘cut and run’ and ‘stay the course,’ ” Lantos said. “What is called for is a long-overdue course correction in the way the executive branch manages our country’s efforts in Iraq, and in the way Congress fulfills its critical constitutional role of oversight.”

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans engaged in parliamentary hardball throughout the day as they debated a defense spending authorization bill.

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Seizing on news reports that Iraq’s new prime minister, Nouri Maliki, supported amnesty for some insurgents who had killed Americans, Democrats sought to embarrass the administration by offering an amendment to the bill condemning the idea.

Republicans, seeking to encourage the divisions between Democrats over whether and when to withdraw from Iraq, countered by introducing an amendment calling for withdrawal by the end of the year.

Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, introduced under his own name a withdrawal proposal that Kerry had outlined earlier in the week.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), seeking to scuttle the Republican move, quickly called for a test vote on the measure.

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In Iraq, he said, there are “two things that don’t exist: weapons of mass destruction and ‘cutting and running.’ ”

Just six Senate Democrats -- Barbara Boxer of California, Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia, Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Edward M. Kennedy and Kerry of Massachusetts -- voted for the withdrawal measure.

Reid is working on a withdrawal proposal that he hopes will attract the support of a large number of Senate Democrats. Debate continues on the defense bill next week.

Times staff writer Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.

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